They're witnesses to history


By Gail Shaffer


Editors note: Local Democrats from Schoharie County had front row seats to history when they traveled to Washington, DC, to participate in the historic Inauguration of America’s 44th President, Barack Obama. Among those attending were Gail Shaffer of Blenheim, former New York Secretary of State; Ginny Kintz of Schoharie, Democratic State Committeewoman; Vena Ray of Bramanville and her grandson Aaron Ray of Carlisle; Megan Neary (SUNY Brockport graduate student), Brendan Neary (SUNY Cortland student) and Eamonn Neary (Mercy School of Law, Univ. of Detroit, student), all of Richmondville. Also, Margaret (“Maggie”) Eaton, a Schoharie native now living in Carmel, California, joined the New York group for the festivities.

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By Gail Shaffer
The magnitude of the crowds was staggering: the peak, for the ceremony on the Mall, was estimated at 1.8 million people. Both Ginny Kintz and I had lived in Washington, and had seen huge crowds there for demonstrations and celebrations. Ginny worked on Capitol Hill for 10 years as legislative aide to former Congressman Gillis Long of Louisiana. I spent four years there as President and CEO of Business & Professional Women/USA, a non-profit organization. Ginny had attended several inaugural ceremonies, and Shaffer had attended President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, yet neither had ever seen the capital city this crowded.
The signs heralded the 56th Inauguration in our nation’s history. As Barack Obama took the historic oath of office to become our 44th President, a brilliant sun warmed the majestic white dome of the Capitol and a crisp wind snapped the flags to attention.
Thanks to our Congressman, Paul Tonko, Ginny and I had center seats in the front sections, affording a wonderful view of the podium and the public officials.
When we turned around, the view was overwhelming: a sea of people stretched from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, all waving American flags. It reminded me of those flag paintings by Childe Hassam.
Not only did we get to see the ceremony and all the former presidents and other VIPs, but we also had a great view of Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma, Aretha Franklin and the U.S. Marine Band.
All the obstacles we had navigated were worth it for this moment. We had left home in a snowstorm Sunday morning, and braved traffic congestion, snarled trains and sleep deprivation to get here. As the new President was sworn in, there was not a dry eye to be seen; the historic moment was palpable and unforgettable. The first African American President made history; the joy and inspiration and sense of history were shared by the full rainbow of Americans in this very diverse crowd.
The whirlwind of activities had begun with a party hosted Monday evening by Governor David Paterson at the Smithsonian Castle for the New Yorkers in town. It was cold and windy outside, but people were already gathering on the Mall for the next day’s ceremony. Inside the Castle, a festive mood and a lively jazz band prevailed as the Empire State Democrats heard from the Governor, Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Hillary Clinton and others.
As the guests mingled, we were surrounded by intriguing exhibits culled from the Smithsonian’s treasures, including exquisite Native American beadwork, petrified cedar polished by time to a gemlike patina, a stunning stuffed peacock and political memorabilia relating to this year’s Lincoln Bicentennial. Elated and tired, we left at midnight to get some rest before the Big Day.
The sun rose Tuesday with a crisp wind blowing. It was cold, but we were prepared, with five layers of winter gear; we even had face masks in our pockets if needed.
The first challenge was to get to the Capitol on time for the Inaugural ceremony. The Metro (Washington’s subway system) was braced for record crowds, and the reality exceeded all expectations.
We were staying at a friend’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac from DC. The metro ride to the Capitol, on a normal day, would be a half hour; on this occasion, it took two and a half hours.
Every train was stuffed beyond capacity: at one point our train was evacuated due to overcrowding that had caused the doors to malfunction. We waited 45 minutes on the platform until we finally squeezed into one of the packed trains to resume the ride to our destination.
Once out of the Metro, the challenge was getting through the crowds and the security process in time to be seated before the proceedings. We walked several blocks, following the color-coded signs to get to the proper entrance for seating. We had gotten up early to rush to the Metro, so we had brought fruit along, planning to eat it for breakfast while waiting for the ceremony to begin; however, all the fruit was confiscated as we went through security screening. Security was intense, so we made it through to our seats just in time for the musical prelude to the Inaugural ceremony.
As the U.S. Marine Band played a selection of stirring music, including Aaron Copland and John Philip Sousa, honored guests from Jimmy Carter to Walter Mondale to Colin Powell were introduced. Then came the culmination, First President George W. Bush, and then President-elect Barack Obama, entered.
The Chief Justice administered the oath of office to the new president as once again, for the 43rd time in over two centuries of our Republic, power was transferred peacefully in the world’s oldest democracy to a new leader, with both political parties participating in the shift.
The new President’s inaugural address was inspiring but also sobering, appropriate to the national mood as our country faces crises both on the homefront, with our ailing economy, and in the international sphere, with dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama, arguably our generation’s most gifted orator, offered more than soaring rhetoric: he reminded our nation of the critical challenges we must face, and called for a new era of responsibility.
After the ceremony, the wall-to-wall people blanketing the Mall poured into the surrounding streets, where vendors with Inaugural souvenirs lined the sidewalks. The next challenge was getting back to “home base” to prepare for the evening’s Inaugural Ball.
After watching TV coverage of the parade, we donned our evening apparel and once more braved the Metro crowds to get to the Mid-Atlantic States’ Ball, at Washington’s Convention Center. When I had left Washington in 2001, this was a pit in the ground, just under construction. It is now an enormous structure, cavernous enough to host three simultaneous balls on different levels.
The Obamas and the Bidens visited each of the 10 official Inaugural Balls throughout the city; in addition, non-profit organizations had other balls, including the Green Ball with environmentalists and the Creative Coalition Ball for arts activists.
By the time the Obamas arrived at our ball, it was 11:30 pm. After the new president spoke briefly, he and First Lady Michelle Obama, in an elegant ivory gown, danced for a while to the delight of the crowd.
After the ball, we stopped in nearby Chinatown for soup and dumplings, before boarding the Metro for the last train back to the burbs, finally crashing for some sleep at 2am. The next day we packed our bags for the long ride back to snowbound Schoharie County. Exhaustion and elation combined as this historic journey became an indelible memory.
The Inauguration every four years, with its pomp and ceremony, its symbolism, and its eloquence, transcends our partisan differences and unites us as a people in our appreciation of the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy. We are privileged as Americans to be part of that tradition. And we --- as citizens of Schoharie County --- were privileged to be there to see this extraordinary moment in our history, reaffirming America’s promise of liberty and justice for all.
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Some Reflections from our Local Delegation:
Ginny Kintz: “What a privilege to have been here! It was the most uplifting, positive, joyous event I’ve ever been a part of --- truly inspiring.”
Megan Neary: “This was an experience I’ll never forget. My brothers and I attended the Concert on the Mall on Sunday, and it was awesome: not just the music --- Springsteen and Bono, Garth Brooks and Stevie Wonder --- but everyone there united in such a positive spirit. That sense of togetherness --- the hopeful vibe --- was phenomenal.”
Gail Shaffer: “Being here was moving. Sometimes we take this process for granted, but with the turmoil in today’s world, this moment was a reminder of how precious our heritage is: a free people charting our course, a government ‘of, by and for the people’, a peaceful transition by the ballot.”